You’ve probably heard it takes 21 days to make a habit stick. What you may not have heard: This notion has no scientific basis whatsoever!
How 21 days became the magic number is an odd story, unearthed by psychologists at University College London’s Health Behavior Research Center. These researchers traced the reference back to the 1960 bestseller Psycho-Cybernetics, written by American plastic surgeon Maxwell Maltz.
Dr. Maltz wrote: Following plastic surgery it takes about 21 days for the average patient to get used to his new face. When an arm or leg is amputated the “phantom limb” persists for about 21 days. People must live in a new house for about three weeks before it begins to “seem like home.” These, and many other commonly observed phenomena tend to show that it requires a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to jell.
So, not only do Dr. Maltz’s observations have no foundation in research but they also have nothing to do with habits. Yet somehow his impressions spawned the notion that a behavior begun on January 1 will automatically become second nature on January 21.
OK, so if 21 days isn’t a valid number, what is? The same British research team undertook an actual scientific investigation into the question and discovered there is — unsurprisingly — a wide range, with an average of 66 days for behaviors to become automatic. (That’s March 6, FYI, if you’re starting on New Year’s Day.)
The researchers followed 96 volunteers for 84 days. Volunteers chose one healthy behavior to carry out daily, along with a cue to remind them: for example, eating a piece of fruit with lunch or running for 15 minutes before dinner. Each day they noted whether they had performed the behavior and how automatic it felt.
The soonest a volunteer reported the habit clicking was 18 days; for another participant, the behavior still hadn’t become second nature by study’s end. (Using some mathematical formula, the researchers projected that volunteer would have the habit ingrained on day 254).
Four Key Strategies for Habit-Building
As the British researchers demonstrated, you can’t rush the formation of a habit or predict exactly when it’ll take root. But they did find the following strategies to be instrumental in making a new behavior automatic.
Keep the behavior simple. Researchers in this study found a clear correlation between the complexity of the habit the amount of time it took to become automatic. At Mazlo, there’s a good reason we don’t offer “get a 6-pack by summer” or “run a marathon by the fall” type programs that demand several new behaviors, some complex, to become part of your daily life all at once. Focus your energy on a single “power habit” like meditation, foam-rolling, or mindful eating, that can be practiced in 10 minutes or less per day, creating as little disruption to ingrained routines as possible. Repetition is key, but skipping a day is okay. In the British study, skipping a day did not affect success; overall consistency was key. However, in another study, missing a week or more of a new habit did impede progress. So, don’t throw in the towel just because life got hectic and you forgot to write in your journal one evening or do your yoga routine over the weekend, but if you fall off the wagon for a week or more, try to learn from the experience and start over with a new approach, perhaps one that includes a measure of accountability.
Find a reliable cue for your new habit. In the study, participants were asked to choose a behavior that could be performed in response to a daily event that occurred every day and only once a day, like “doing 50 situps after my morning coffee.” So, choose a situational cue (vs. a time-based cue which is not as effective) for your new habit and adjust it as often as needed until you find one that works consistently. For the first few days you might want to layer on a reminder too, like a post-it note on your coffee maker, so you don’t simply forget what you signed up for.
Make your habit enjoyable. No extrinsic rewards were used in this study, but the researchers allowed the participants to choose a healthy eating, drinking, or exercise behavior they wanted to make into a habit. When you’re trying to adopt a new habit, make sure it’s something you want to do - ask yourself “why” repeatedly until you get a really meaningful answer. Ideally you’ll also find the new habit enjoyable, but if not, build in a reward that will keep you motivated until you start experiencing the intrinsic benefits (which should come quickly if you adhere to #2).
Bottom line: There’s no magic number of days associated with habit formation, and certainly 21 days is an unrealistic target.
Sharen Ross is the co-founder of www.mazlo.me. Mazlo’s two-week programs help people build powerful habits for personal and professional growth through daily ten-minute activities, real-life practice, and private feedback from an expert coach.
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